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By Christina Chastain
Laumeier Sculpture Park’s most recent exhibit, Memory and Desire, which lends its name from our fellow St. Louisian T.S. Elliot’s The Waste Land, is full of dichotomies and trivia of a time before.
Part whimsy, part spiritual, the exhibit is nothing less than retro contemporary, looking back at St. Louis’ past, the buildings that no longer exist, the generations who came before us, and the desire to look to the future – of what art can and will be.
“We are recognizing and rediscovering an urban landscape through these signs and places that have since closed and the signs are left, which is really their personality, is really what called people to those businesses,” said David Hutson, the artist and collector behind the exhibit. “So this exhibit isn’t really just about neon, it’s also about St. Louis and times passed. It’s kind of interesting to see something that was in the everyday lives of the people who came before us if you’re from St. Louis or have an appreciation for the city.”
From an early age, Hutson had a strong affinity for nostalgia.
“I spent a lot of my teenage years scouring the city looking for artifacts,” said Hutson. “I was attracted to anything that emitted light, and those two things came together and I started collecting vintage signs. And I amassed such a collection of vintage signs that I knew I wouldn’t be able to afford to do anything with them unless I learned to do it myself.”
Learning neon wasn’t easy and took years to master.
“Neon involves science, technology, artistry, craftsmanship, and a little bit of alchemy,” said Hutson. “A lot of people don’t quite get it.”
But, after mastering the art, training with a neon artist in the Bay Area, and repairing his own collection, Hutson began creating his own work, which is the second part to the exhibit.
One of his most popular works includes a modern work of art from the past – a family door from his ancestral home on Shaw Blvd., where three generations of his family lived, back-lit by neon. This example of retro contemporary explains the exhibit perfectly and can be seen on every wall and corner of the Aronson Fine Arts Center – a sign from past, in its reflection, a modern work of bendy, gaseous typography created by Huston.
“The interesting thing about neon — ever since the creation of neon, it seems to go through these renaissance periods and we’re in another one right now,” said Hutson. “People seem to rediscover neon. And I think one thing that drives it is that we forget how it works or we don’t know how it works and it’s always fun to find out how things that are a little bit mysterious, like neon, works.”
How neon works is a journey onto itself.
We will let Huston explain:
“There’s a natural phenomenon — inert gas will light up when electricity is passed through it. High voltage electricity will ionize the gases in the air and they give off light, and that is plasma, which is another state of matter that we don’t normally think about. Once the inert gases were isolated, they were able to achieve a very efficient way to create plasma lighting. And all neon signs in the beginning were called gas tube signs, because they are literally glass tubes that have had all the air evacuated out of them and a little bit of inert gas, like neon or argon, which are used commercially, introduced into the tube. When high voltage passes through, it lights up. So you have the scientific part of neon, which is that phenomenon, and you have the artistic part, which is the shaping of the glass.”
Memory and Desire, running through Jan. 13, 2019, showcases a large scale outdoor work along with his extensive collection of vintage neon signs alongside and in conversation with about 15 neon sculptures from Huston’s current body of work.
For more information, go to laumeiersculpturepark.org.